A road through the past

I’m in favor of modern, paved roads, when it doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg to drive on them (more on that later). Nine times out of 10 times, modern roads are helpful. But if you’re the fool who carries historical maps inside your head, modern roads can befuddle you occasionally.

On our summer vacation, we took a day to visit Gettysburg. This was a risky move, as the battlefield was an enticing attraction to only two members of our five-person family. I have always been a reader of American History. Big Brother has an interest in history as well. He took an 8th grade Civil War class last spring and was eager to see the field.

For the others, interest in Gettysburg was less acute. My wife likes to visit famous places, but once somebody tells her who won, she feels like she’s got all the info about the battle she needs. Buster believes when you go someplace with a cannon on every hill, you should be allowed to blow up something. Big Man just wants a hotel with a pool.

Sorry, Buster. All those guns are just for looking at.

It was a hot, humid day, but everyone bore it well. My wife was a trooper, driving us around and stopping wherever I asked so we could examine the monuments and walk the ground. I used the map in my head to answer Big Brother’s questions.

By the time we got to Little Round Top, it was the heat of the afternoon. We all climbed to the apex and took in the view. I wandered to the left, trying to locate the end of the Union battle line. Big Brother followed, and suddenly we were on a sacred quest to find the monument to the 20th Maine.

The beaten path ended, and we found ourselves exploring through underbrush. Now that the hunt had begun, the younger boys took up the chase, rushing downhill through the weeds to keep up. My wife followed out of concern for her wayward boys, issuing a constant bugle call of poison ivy warnings.

In the overgrowth, we discover the monument to the regiment in line next to the 20th. We must be close. Big Brother forged ahead, convinced he would soon be standing upon that hallowed spot.

He stopped short, clearly befuddled. When I came up to him, I understood why. He stood at a clearing with a paved road running through. We followed the road to an intersection, wondering how we could have missed the marker.

At the intersection we noticed a park ranger addressing a small group across the intersecting road. Then we knew our mistake. The modern roads had messed up the maps in our heads. The monument was just where it should have been, and just where we might have looked, had the Union line been bisected by asphalt in 1863.

No matter. We found our Holy Grail. A 13-year-old solidified his connection to the past. Even his tired and sweaty little brothers seemed satisfied. Their dad was happy about many things at that moment.

We didn’t see everything, but we couldn’t leave without finding this.

Mom had gone to get the car. When we felt the air conditioning inside, she became Gettysburg’s greatest hero.

EPILOGUE

A month later I got the Pay-by-Plate toll in the mail from the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  The toll for driving from the Ohio border to the Gettysburg exit, one way, was $67. Paved roads are getting to be trouble.

Cherished historical figured pulled from his pedestal

For his 7th grade Language Arts class (what we old people used to call English), Big Brother keeps a reading log. Fortunately, he gets to read whatever books he wants, because he is not an eager reader, and is not particularly fond of fiction. He does the best the with history, so he has been reading a book about the American Civil War. For those who did not go to school in the US, and those who did not pay attention during their US schooling, it’s important to the forthcoming incident to know that the American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865.

Big Brother was getting close to the end of the book, last I checked. This morning, as all the boys were getting logged into school (wrap your heads around that, old people), I asked him if he’d finished.

From his classroom on the couch, he replied that he had.

“How did the Civil War end?” I asked.

He gave the standard reply of any 12-year-old who doesn’t want to be quizzed about schoolwork: “I don’t remember.”

“Really?” I asked. “You just finished it yesterday.”

“You already know how it ended,” he told me.

“But you just read the book,” I insisted.

From his classroom, on the loveseat, Buster (3rd grade) piped up in his brother’s defense. “But you know the most about history,” he told me.

“Yes, but . . . “

Big Man (1st grade) cut me off. Sitting in his classroom on the recliner, he forestalled my argument and closed the case in Big Brother’s defense. “But you were the one who was in that fight,” he told me, just before all three boys broke into a peal of laughter.

I just got cut down by a six-year-old.

Can you blame me for being a proud father?

I’m the guy in the middle. The one holding the gun.

Basking on borrowed time

My wife is due to give birth to our second boy in March. People ask her how she is feeling, which is a perfectly sensible question. Some people ask me how I am feeling too, which makes no sense to me at all.

How am I feeling? Of course, I’m feeling great. I am basking in the limelight of an impending miracle. I am receiving congratulations, getting patted on the back, and being tolerated far above what I deserve by people who have no solid reason to tolerate me. And what is it costing me? Nothing. I have no aches or pains and I sleep like a rock. I am enjoying the loan of good will that I will not have to begin to pay back for months yet.

The pregnancy time is an expectant father’s grace period. Everything difficult about the new baby is still theoretical. The diapers, the lost sleep, the marital stress are all miles away yet. There’s nothing to do but sit back and soak up the congratulations. Life is good before the interest on the borrowed time is called in.

I imagine that this is kind of how it was for dashing young men at the outbreak of the Civil War. The horrors of war were still a ways into the future, and not necessary to be thought about yet. Meanwhile, all a young gallant had to do was announce his enlistment to afford himself the glow of the young ladies’ attentions. “Oh, you’re going off to war? How courageous of you. I will reward your bravery with a brief glimpse of my stocking below the ankle.” Cha-ching!

Those guys had no idea what they were getting themselves into. They thought it would be a few months of roughing it in the woods, just the way a first time father innocently believes that his new baby will be a nearly-self-sufficient toddler after about 90 days. Fools — all of them. It was only the men who re-enlisted after having seen the face of war that deserved to score some ankle for themselves.

Like me, those 19th century rakes were living high off the news. They hadn’t been brought down to earth by the reality yet. But I have an advantage. I’ve been through this war before and I know its horrors. I know what happens in diapers, and I know it doesn’t always happen in a diaper. I’ve seen a baby boy lie in wait for some unsuspecting parent to carelessly peel back his diaper and unleash a merciless ambush of pee. Here’s mud in your eye! Only, it’s not nearly as pleasant as mud would be. I am a veteran, hardened by the destruction wreaked by little babies. I know that I will not make it through the coming conflict unscathed, untainted, un-puked-upon. I know it and I accept it as my fate.

In the meantime, I intend to sit back, relax, make the most of my grace period, and maybe see if my wife will condescend to showing me a glimpse of her ankle.